J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, September 08, 2020

A Call for the Cradle of Liberty

Having laid out the history of the name “Faneuil Hall” and my principles for changing historic memorials, I’m going to share my thoughts on whether to rename that building because of Peter Faneuil’s slave-dealing.

First off, I think naming the whole complex “Faneuil Hall Marketplace” gives the man too much credit. I was actually surprised to find that was the official name and that “Quincy Market” applied to only the central 1820s building. Mayor Josiah Quincy did a lot more to develop Boston than Peter Faneuil did.

But what about the original building that Faneuil paid for? (Or, rather, the much expanded successor to that building, as shown in this photo from Archipedia New England.)

If the community decides to rename that building, I feel strongly that the Faneuil Hall name shouldn’t completely disappear. And not just because so many history books and tourist guides have used it. If we New Englanders really cared about tourists knowing where they are, we’d put up more street signs.

Rather, the change should remain visible for the reasons I listed back here: the overlap of old and new names would more clearly communicate the change, the reasons behind it, and the process of historical change, hopefully for the better. To answer Mayor Marty Walsh’s 2018 objection to renaming the site, people would know why the city did it.

And let’s face it—even with a new official name we’ll still call the site “Faneuil Hall” a lot of the time until we die. We’re not good at giving up names here. Just look at “Bell Circle” in Revere; that local name endured for decades after the eponymic tire dealership nearby closed, despite not appearing on any signs or maps. Eventually it lasted so long a new development adopted it, and Bell Circle became official.

For another example, here’s a 2012 article providing directions to the Massachusetts Historical Society via the “Auditorium Stop,” which had been officially renamed twenty-two years earlier. In five years naming rights for the T.D. Garden, formerly FleetCenter, will be up for bid again, but we’re all going to keep calling it “the Garden,” right?

What should the new name be? To gather proposals, I looked at news articles about the renaming campaign and even took the risk of reading the comments.

Kevin Peterson, an early advocate of the change, has suggested renaming the hall after Crispus Attucks, killed in the Boston Massacre. Attucks’s body, along with James Caldwell’s, lay in Faneuil Hall before their funeral in March 1770. Attucks is far from forgotten in Boston, however. There’s a large monument to the victims of the Massacre on Boston Common, a prominent stone in the Granary Burying-Ground, and a wide marker in the sidewalk near the Old State House. Of the five or six people killed, Attucks is the one whose name is most familiar to Americans today.

Another suggestion that I’ve seen is “Douglass Hall,” after Frederick Douglass. He indeed spoke against slavery in the meeting hall several times. But Douglass spoke a lot of places—he spent years as a professional orator. Douglass lived in New Bedford; Lynn; Rochester, New York; and Washington, D.C., but never in Boston. To me seizing on his name looks too much like an attempt to claim a celebrity just when he’s getting recognized more and more. There are abolitionists with stronger ties to Boston.

I saw one suggestion coming from multiple people: “The Cradle of Liberty.” Authors have applied that sobriquet to the building since 1835 at least. (Previous to that, as I traced in this posting, the term was used to mean Boston, Massachusetts, and even Great Britain.) “The Cradle of Liberty” is boastful, to be sure, but historic and recognizable. It also highlights the question of freedom at the heart of the famous debates within Faneuil Hall and this debate about its name. So far that strikes me as the best possibility.

So my starting point is “The Cradle of Liberty (formerly Faneuil Hall).” But I wouldn’t stop there. I think the building offers the chance to recognize more people and more history.

TOMORROW: Doorways into the past.


Dan Mandell said...

Great series on the Hall. In this piece, I was caught by your point that "If we New Englanders really cared about tourists knowing where they are, we’d put up more street signs." Reminded me of when I first moved to Massachusetts, we were searching for an apartment to rent in the Malden/Reading area, and couldn't figure out where we were because only the smaller cross streets had signs.

J. L. Bell said...

Our local attitude is, “If you don’t know where you are, you probably don’t belong there.”